The artistic director of the West Australian Ballet discusses his legacy with Karen van Ulzen.

2012 is a big year for the West Australian Ballet – the celebration of its 60th anniversary. But the year also began with some sad news too – that it will the last for the company under its dashing artistic director, Ivan Cavallari.

“I am leaving mostly for private, not professional reasons,” Cavallari says. “I’m very happy here.”

Cavallari has been forced into his decision by the illness of his partner, who lives in Stuttgart in Germany. His new post (which he sought after having decided to return home), is as artistic director of the Ballet du Rhin in Alsace, France, where he will be about three hours away from family and friends.

Though he was born in Italy, Cavallari forged most of his career with the Stuttgart Ballet, from where he came directly to join the WAB in 2007. It is his first experience as an artistic director, and his achievements have been considerable.

First and foremost has been the company’s ambitious and interesting programming. Cavallari has presided over an excitingly rich repertoire that has raised the company’s national standing and made it a very desirable place for dancers to be.

He engaged the work of some of Europe’s hottest choreographers, such as Paul Lightfoot, Petr Zuska, Youri Vamos and Uwe Scholz. He also staged John Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew (which was repeated due to public demand). And he engaged the distinguished former Cranko ballerina, Marcia Haydee, to stage her own full-length production of The Sleeping Beauty.

While making full use of his international contacts, Cavallari did not ignore the artists on his doorstep. Locals with European links – such as Margaret Illman (a former Stuttgart ballerina), Kim McCarthy (an alumnus of the Hamburg Ballet and Nacho Duato’s Compania de Danza) and Terence Kohler (resident choreographer at the Bavarian State Ballet). Nor was young blood overlooked.

Cavallari cultivated fledgling choreographers such as Tim O’Donnell, Cass Mortimer, Reed Luplau and company dancer Jayne Smeulders, giving them main-stage opportunities. And he sought out and paid due respect to local venerables, such as former ballerina Lucette Aldous (commissioning from her a new Don Quixote), and Barry Moreland (former artistic director of the company), whose L’apres midi d’un Faune will be included in the forthcoming Diamonds season.

Altogether Cavallari’s record is of a well balanced mix of traditional and new, international and local, safe and risky, that is especially impressive given the company’s size and location.

In fact, the WAB’s size is another achievement. Cavallari was certainly not the first director to campaign for more dancers at the WAB, but he has been persistent or lucky enough to actually get what he asked for. When he began his tenure the number was 19 – it is now 36 (32 of them professional). He is aiming for 40, a number he believes is the absolute minimum for a proper classical ballet company. He also increased the number of mainstage seasons per year from three to four.

All of this – the big productions, the extra numbers, the risky programming – could not have been achieved by an artistic director’s will alone. It needs money, and in that regard Cavallari’s reign has seen an outstanding achievement. In 2009 the State Government increased WAB’s funding by $1.2 million for four years – the largest single boost since the company turned professional in 1970.

Cavallari is full of praise for the “incredible” management team, board members and the politicians who brought about this landmark funding decision. One of these was general manager Steven Roth, who came on board the same year as Cavallari. In his first year he commissioned John Knell, from the Intelligence Agency in London, to come to Australia and write a business case for the future of WAB. The resulting report provided the rationale for the funding increase.

Cavallari can’t praise Roth enough. “It has been the most precious collaboration in my life. Without this man and his discretion – he is a real gentleman – without him [I don’t know where I’d be]. He is the number one man in Australia. I owe him huge thanks.”

Not everything has gone the WAB’s way, however. The Federal Government has yet to come up with its share of the funding (it is supposed to provide $400,000, or 20 per cent p.a of the total allocation).

“If they do not come on board it will be a real tragedy,” Cavallari says.

“We will lose everything we have gained.”

He is also disappointed that the State Government will not build a new lyric theatre in Perth, and has been an outspoken critic of the new 500-seat Heath Ledger Theatre, completed in 2010.

“What is the use of building another small theatre?” Cavallari asks. “Not having a large theatre limits the company’s ability to expand and build audiences.”

So, given all of the above, what does he list as his most important legacy?

“The biggest is what we have learnt – me as director, the dancers, the management team – we have learnt what it is like to have a company that can be facilitated by real support. Everyone has had their eyes opened. I hope that will stay alive.”

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